Time Out of Mind by Rachel Field (1935)

Time out of Mind by Rachel Field

Time Out of Mind by Rachel Field (1894 – 1942) was this American author’s first novel for adults, published in 1935. The following year, it won the National Book Award.

Field had been writing prose and poetry for children and young adults, as well as plays, since 1924. Her major breakthrough, up until Time Out of Mind was released, was the children’s book Hitty: Her First Hundred Years (1929), which won the Newbery Medal.

The story in Time Out of Mind is narrated in the first person by Kate Fernald. Kate, described as a hardy, “square-rigged” girl, comes to the Maine coast home of the Fortune family at the age of ten. She accompanies her mother, who serves as the housekeeper, and grows up with brother and sister Nat and Clarissa Fortune, forging a bond that would last a lifetime. The book begins:

“I was never one to begrudge people their memories. From a child I would listen when they spoke of the past. Mother often remarked upon it as strange in one so young. But I think I must have guessed, even then, at what is now clear to me, though I have not skill enough with words to make it plain. For I know that nothing can be so sweet as remembered joy, and nothing so bitter as despair that no longer has the power to hurt us. And to me the past seems like nothing so much as one of those shells that used to be on every mantelpiece of sea-faring families years ago along the coast of Maine.”

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Rachel Field and her dog, Spriggen
Learn more about Rachel Field
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This award-winning novel earned universal praise at the time of its publication; though it’s no longer well known, contemporary readers seem to enjoy it as well. Here are two 1935 reviews of a story worthy of rediscovery:

Maine is Scene of Rachel Field’s Nostalgic Saga

From the original review in the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, April 27, 1935: The cycle of the seasons, spring and summer, autumn and winter, along the blue Penobscot Bay, forms the radiant background for Rachel Fields’s nostalgic saga of Maine folks and tall-masted sailing ships.

The pungent odor of the majestic pines and the harbors about which the fortune of a great shipping family eddies, permeates each page of Time Out of Mind, a shining example of the renaissance of the traditional romantic novel.

From these pages there arises another stalwart “square-rigged” figure, Kate Fernald, who belongs alongside Mary Peters and others of her caliber in the Maine hall of fictional fame.

Kate, daughter of the housekeeper, came to Fortune’s Folly, the great white-columned home of the Fortune family when she was ten years old. As an old woman, she draws upon her storehouse of  poignant memories to relate the story of the disintegration of the Fortunes, ship-builders for three generations.

Major Fortune, heir to the tradition that “there’s no port too far for Fortune pines to cast their shadows,” was too blindly willful to read the doom of canvas in the encroachment of steam. His failure to read this handwriting on the wall spelled disaster for his fortune and his family.

Rissa (short for Clarissa), the arrogant and lovely daughter, and Nat, his son, whose physical unfitness to step into the Major’s shoes and love of music rankled his father.

There is a sense of foreboding at the torchlight launching of the Rainbow, the last of the Fortune ships to sail the seas, and well there might have been for the sailing of the Rainbow marked the beginning of the Fortune’s decline.

Trembling, white-faced twelve-year-old Nat is forced by his father to make a hand on the maiden voyage, to return a year later permanently broken in spirit and health. Rissa and Kate Fernald, equally loving Nat, scheme to protect him from the Major. This jealous struggle to draw him within the circle of love continues through the story.

Rissa and Nat escape from the stern shadow of the Folly to Paris. The Major, never recovered from the fate of the Rainbow, is laid to rest in the Little Prospect Cemetery, but Kate Fernald stays on, happy in the daily chores, scouring the Maine countryside for ripe red berries and russet apples, suffering an occasional twinge from the failure of her plan for marriage.

Kate still harbors a notion that Rissa, Nat, and she will be together again in the big house, the grandeur of which is slowly fading in the shadow of the pert modern homes of the summer visitors that are slowly and surely crowding the acres of the Fortune shoreline.

In the tragic climax of Nat and Rissa’s return, Kate’s strength in the face of failure is a memorable characterization and the resultant lump in the throat, the product of Miss Field’s word artistry, might be termed senile sentimentality by the foes of romanticism, but we prefer to call it just a natural involuntary reaction to the author’s force and skill.

In the end, Kate Fernald hears the strike of the quaint French clock, symbolic of the flow of time through the years and all that remains to her of the Fortune’s possessions, and she finds herself left alone “to fill the last pages of the Major’s old logbooks.”

Strong in color with a quiet rhythm all its own, Time Out of Mind is a sturdy tale, as fresh and clean as the tang of a New England breeze.

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Time out of Mind by Rachel Field
Time Out of Mind by Rachel Field on Amazon*
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Kate Fernald is a Character You Will Not Forget

From The Daily Times (Davenport, Iowa), April 6, 1935: In the words of Major Fortune, last of the ship-building Fortunes whose vessels for generations had been known the world around, Kate Fernald, who tells the story in Time Out of Mind, was “a  square-rigged girl” and “a four-square girl.”

When Kate was only ten years old, her father died and her mother gave up the farm where they had lived. The two came to “Fortune’s Folly,” the great house of Major Fortune, where Kate’s mother took the position of housekeeper. From that time on, there grew in this simple, warmhearted country girl a conflict between two widely divergent ways of life — the reckless and lordly manner that came to a Fortune, and the sweet and lowly, the good and honest path that so many of the world’s toilers take.

Yet Kate had no pretense about her, and the conflict wasn’t due to any importance she stressed upon the highborn — rather, it was a conflict in loyalties. She was faithful to her own kind, but she was faithful to these Fortunes too, even to the Major who had been so cruel and unjust to his son, Nat, simply because the boy had a taste for music instead of ships.

Kate was only a child when she came to Fortune’s Folly and she wasn’t regarded as a servant, or even as the daughter of a servant, yet there was a kind of barrier between Kate and Nat and Rissa, the daughter of the Major, just the same. They played together, they confided in each other, they formed a secret society to outwit the Major so that Nat could practice his beloved music.

But Kate as well as the Fortune children know that they belonged to different worlds. Nat was less conscious of this than Rissa, indeed. Nat was so absorbed in his music that he was scarcely aware of being a Fortune, certainly, he was not the conventional son of a line of strong men. No, he was weak and puny and had a bad heart. He was marked for glory, as a fortune-teller predicted, but he was also marked for death.

The big-souled Kate, the narrator of this story, looked backward as old people do, remembering feeling, sensing every detail of the scene, which is the Maine coast, recalling words, inflections, gestures of persons she had known in her girlhood and young womanhood.

As she relates this tale, she has had a job in the post office of Little Prospect, and for thirty years has led an obscure and blameless life with a modest role in the community.

Once in a while, someone who knows the strange story of Nat’s death, and about his having come home to stay at Fortune’s Folly when Kate was there alone; a broken-down Nat it was who had found fame but not happiness.

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The Field House by Robin Clifford Wood
The Field House by Robin Clifford Wood —
Rediscovering Rachel Field

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Once in a while, a garbled old piece of gossip will be repeated. But those who hear the talk do not pay much heed; it is difficult to get excited about the irregular romance of a person who is very old. It all happened so long ago, one will say; perhaps it never happened.

It was a happy thought by Rachel Field to have Kate herself tell the story, because by this means the author achieved a character of great significance. Kate unconsciously reveals her sterling qualities — her bravery, goodness, independence, and capacities for loving, giving, and serving.

Kate herself told Nat once that “it’s better to feel something too much, even if it spills over.” She thought it was “better than drying up slow from the inside.” And it is a remembered abundance of love and a remembered desire to spend herself, even recklessly, that kept Kate from being a tragic spinster and letting those free-flowing founts of her being dry up.

This is a book that anyone can enjoy and it’s recommended unreservedly to all who appreciate the land and the trees and the movements of the tides and for characters who are consistent with their heritage and upbringing. It is a book filled with the mellowness, the bright sun, and the wild rain that natives of the Maine coast know.

It is filled with a repetition of nature’s warmth and growth and storm, nature’s occasional flashes of cruelty. Rachel Field depicts these places and their people so surely and so truly.

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